How times and reputations change. When I saw John Gielgud play Ivanov in the mid-1960s, he drove me nuts. I rushed home and wrote a poem: “Ivanov, Ivanov, we’ve all had enough of, your whimpering, simpering whine; your tiresome self-pity is not even witty...” and so on.
Now the brutish comedy and callowness of Chekhov’s first play – overlooked by the playwright’s best English translator, Michael Frayn – makes it seem just the West End ticket. And the Donmar season at Wyndham’s is off to a flying start with Michael Grandage’s scorching production, Kenneth Branagh’s meticulous and moving performance as the gentleman farmer swimming in debts and despair, and Tom Stoppard’s clinical, idiomatic new version (using a literal translation by the perennially unsung Helen Rappaport).
I’ve rarely felt heat like it in the theatre, even without the air-conditioning. The lighting of Paule Constable and soundtrack of Adam Cork conspire with Christopher Oram’s dilapidated cream-painted interiors and fugged-up windows to create an overpowering atmosphere of meteorological and emotional stasis. Branagh’s Ivanov, aged up slightly to the wrong side of 40, is literally at the end of his tether and cannot fly.
He has fallen out of love with his Jewish wife who is dying of tuberculosis – and is played with an ingrained grief and starchy moon-faced resignation by beautiful Gina McKee – and trapped in a nightly vigil on his own crisis at the Lebedevs; Kevin J McNally’s wealthy neighbour is the Horatio, if you like, to this self-absorbed over-age Hamlet, while his grasping wife Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel) pushes their daughter Sasha (Andrea Riseborough) towards a relationship of tactical materialism.
The luxury casting includes Lorcan Cranitch as Ivanov’s tempestuous estate manager, Malcolm Sinclair as his sadly unfulfilled uncle (“No children, no money, no prospects”), Tom Hiddleston as an impatiently critical doctor and Lucy Briers as a snobbish young widow. The cartoonish, Gogolian quality of the rogues’ gallery is more restrained than it was in Jonathan Kent’s hilarious revival (using a David Hare text) at the Almeida ten years ago, but the actors certainly give full individual value while maintaining an overall ensemble purpose of style and tone.
Branagh has never been better, making no bones about Ivanov’s horrible anti-semitism and the utter futility of his situation. Unlike Gielgud, of course, he doesn’t ask you to like him for a moment. The play hurtles by, hitting its four curtain climaxes with an almost shocking intensity. What was that about not too much serious drama going on in the West End?